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Tetela amulets: Re-interpreting a medical anthropology collection as a fashion benchmark

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In the 1920s and 1930s, missionaries and colonial officials in equatorial Africa collected thousands of amulets – devices worn on the body that were made locally for protection and healing (spiritual and/or physical). One of these collections – assembled in the 1920s by an American pseudo-missionary, Major John White – is now held at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures at Indiana University, which accepted the amulets and other artefacts used by the Tetela people as an example of ‘medical anthropology’. Although they were not made as ‘fashion’ (or even as art), I argue that they can be viewed as a style of dress specific to a time and place and thus as fashion. Like fashions in clothing, individual amulets can be shown to have similarities in their form and symbolic meaning, which can be expected to change over time. I propose looking at this collection of amulets as a ‘fashion benchmark’ in the history of Tetela dress, calling for further research and seeking to push the boundaries on our conception of fashion, making it less focused on the ‘fashion industry’ and more inclusive of slower-changing styles of dress, minority cultures, and non-western cultures.
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Keywords: Africa; amulets; dress; fashion; medical anthropology; religion

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Indiana University, United States

Publication date: October 1, 2019

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